Despite the looming possibility of a ban in the U.S., short-form video app TikTok likely won't experience a significant dent in its popularity worldwide any time soon.
TikTok has proven itself a platform where information can go viral, fast — from memes and dances to mis- and disinformation. But it can also be used to debunk false information and instead communicate facts to large groups of people. Today, half of news publishers have a TikTok account as they attempt to engage the app’s overwhelmingly young audience: in the U.S., more than half of all TikTok users are 18-24 years old, and over 90% are under the age of 35.
During a recent ICFJ Empowering the Truth Global Summit session, Openly TikTok Lead and LGBTQ+ correspondent Enrique Anarte shared with journalists how to make engaging news TikToks. Here’s what he had to say:
The “For You” page
Most people who gain traction on TikTok do so through the FYP – or “For You” page – which uses an algorithm to predict what a user will be interested in watching next. Other social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, have similar algorithmic-based suggestion pages, but TikTok’s has gained global fame for the accuracy of its recommendations.
“The FYP will define your whole world, every minute you work on this app,” said Anarte. Most people consume content on this page, as opposed to the “Following” page, which only contains content made or shared by creators that the user follows.
“You can’t expect that people will see [your videos] because you’re a big outlet, or because you have 100K followers. A big outlet with over 150K followers [can get] 2K or 3K views because people aren’t consuming from the Following page,” said Anarte.
To ensure your intended audience sees your video, cater to the algorithm. Journalists can do this by including strategic words, hashtags and keyphrases in the descriptions of their videos or in the text featured in the videos themselves, that target a specific population. Search engines, too, can read these text elements and enable your content to reach even more people.
To make an engaging news story on TikTok, journalists should update their formats to target their intended audience.
One way to do this is through “native storytelling” which allows users to capitalize on the built-in features of the app to create content specifically designed for Tiktok. By meeting TikTok users where they are, journalists can help get young people who frequently use the app involved and interested in the news.
“Online audiences have become a bit wary of online publishers, of journalists,” said Anarte. “I think people are tired of the same traditional formats on these apps. And that’s where I think that native TikTok formats are helpful.”
Native storytelling can include using TikTok-exclusive features, incorporating trending audio and music, and regularly changing the reporting style. The Washington Post, for example, “duets” their videos – that is, creates new videos that play alongside one or more existing ones – every time a mass shooting occurs in the U.S. This innovative storytelling effectively illustrates the number of previous mass shootings, which can be more impactful than a single video about the event.
Another unique TikTok feature, “stitching,” allows for a video to play for three to five seconds, and then another user to create a response to the original video. It is a particularly useful format journalists can employ to counter misinformation and debunk myths on other TikToks, or to expand on topics that other creators have already covered.
Journalists can also use trending audio as backing tracks to spread their stories. Since users can search for videos by the audio used, creating a video that uses a trending song or audio track can help it reach a wider audience.
Finally, anyone who’s used or watched a TikTok is probably familiar with the sketch or skit format, often formatted as “POV” or “point-of-view,” in which the creator takes on multiple different roles to act out a situation – or even assigns a role to the viewer. Journalists can use this unconventional format to discuss an important story in an engaging way.
“They’re a great way of making stories come to life,” said Anarte. “[Acting out both sides of a story] allows me to showcase a different side, so it helps me strengthen my impartiality as a journalist, but it feels like an entertaining video.”
These native storytelling aspects are especially important for those without an established base, because they allow for more visibility: even if you have a small social media following, you can attract thousands or even millions of views.
“If you are not a major news brand it will be much harder to get people to follow you, but TikTok is based on how good your video is, not how many followers you have,” Anarte noted.
The direct relationship that journalists as creators must have with their viewers further distinguishes TikTok from traditional journalism.
“TikTok has forced us to stop talking down to our audience and to start talking to them – to start engaging with them,” said Anarte. “Here the relationship you have with your audience is super important, and being open to feedback, even if it’s criticism, is super important.”
Indeed, TikTok audiences appreciate when creators are willing to make corrections or address opposing viewpoints, Anarte continued. In return, journalists can use their audience as sources for newsgathering.
“[TikTok users are] going to be the first ones to ask, ‘Can you please cover this story that just happened in my country?’ They’re very proactive, and sometimes you can even get [to a story] before Reuters or the AP.”
However, posting videos on TikTok isn’t always the best choice for a journalist or news outlet, Anarte cautioned. TikTok does not fit every newsroom’s editorial strategy, and just because many people are on the app, that doesn’t mean that it's necessary for every journalist to be on it.
For those who decide to add TikTok to their reporting arsenal, it’s important to be conscious of the desires and expectations of your audience. “This is an entertainment platform,” said Anarte. “You’re competing with cat videos, thirst traps…you have to make a story relevant.”
To drive engagement, journalists above all should keep their posts succinct, prioritize their followers and their needs, and be authentic.
“You’re not on TikTok to go viral; you’re really on TikTok to reach the audience you wanted to reach,” said Anarte. “It’s better to get a video with lower views, but high positive engagement from the people you want to reach.”
Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.